The history of women on submarines

Military submarines have long been one of the last bastions of the “male-only” mentality. For many years, navies across the globe were unwilling to let women on submarines, arguing that females were either physically or mentally unsuitable for the job.

Slowly, however, more and more women have been allowed to serve their countries below the waves, swapping the kitchen and the laundry room for the cramped metal conditions of the military submarine. This is their story…

The First Women on Submarines

  • 1776 — David Bushnell, an American inventor often cited as “the last intelligent American,” builds the first military submarine, named Turtle. His wife, Betty “Hairy” Bushnell, provides the first recorded account of a female allowed on a submarine (almost). In her diary, Betty wrote, “I asked David, quite politely, if I could take it for a drive. He replied, quite curtly, “Good Lord, woman, are you mad?”” David never took Betty for a ride in the Turtle, claiming his wife was too hysterical, and too large, for such an adventure.
First females on submarines
The history of females on submarines begins with Betty Bushnell and the Turtle.
  • 1879 — The Peruvian government commissions a submarine, the Toro Submarino, in an attempt to gain an advantage against the Chilean fleet during the War of the Pacific. The Toro never saw combat, but did make a successful test voyage from the port of Callao near Lima, Peru. The Peruvian Minister of War was among the first passengers. When asked if his wife would make the voyage with him, the War Minister replied, “¿Estás loco? ¡Ella es tan gorda que hundiría la maldita cosa!” (“Are you crazy? She’s so fat she’d sink the damn thing!”). His wife was one of the first females not allowed on a submarine in Latin America.
  • 1888 — The French Navy builds Gymnote, an electrically powered military submarine. Gymnote completed more than 2,000 successful dives. Some military historians place the dive count at more than 7,500, claiming the crew often used the submarine for illicit moonlight brothel runs. Marie ‘Five Lips’ Debouche, a prostitute originally from Montpellier, is often considered the first woman to have gone down in a submarine.
  • 1914 — Submarine warfare entered a new phase during World War 1. German U-boats carried out unrestricted submarine warfare against British merchant vessels, behavior the British called “frightfully ill-mannered.” No female submariners served during the period, at least not on record. The crew of the German U-14, however, famously claimed to have discovered a female aboard, posing as a man. According to submariner Walther Wiener, “He was a towering man from Lübeck, arms like tree trunks, but then we saw his mighty breasts. We found him lacking Bratwurst, so we jettisoned him off the coast of Ireland. The Kaiserliche Marine is no place for women, no matter how strong their arms.”
  • 1940 — The Italian Navy (Marina Militare) has never been a thing of pride, especially during World War II. A rumor soon spread throughout the British Navy that Italian submarines were piloted by women, such was their cowardice in battle. When the Royal Navy captured the Archimede-class Galileo Galilei submarine, the British victors were keen to pop open the hatch and see what they’d find inside. “Pretty little things, they almost looked like women. They certainly fought like women, but what else can one expect from Italians?” wrote Petty Officer David “Tug” Tweddle in his memoir, 50 Ports, 500 Whores and One Withered Scrofulous Cock. The Italian submariners were not women. But they were very scared and terribly pretty.
  • 1944 – 1945 — Toward the end of World War II, Japanese Special Attack Units were being developed at an increasing rate. Kaiten manned torpedoes and Fukuryu human mines were both deployed, along with Chīsana Ashi (“Small Feet”) human torpedoes. Unlike manned torpedoes (which maneuvered much like miniature submarines), Japanese human torpedoes were simply humans fired directly from submarine torpedo tubes. Chīsana Ashi human torpedoes were almost exclusively female because “women are smaller, more streamlined and less important than men” (Japanese Handbook of Honorable Suicide, 1944). The women were loaded into torpedo tubes while clutching ornamental handbags filled with lethal explosives, which they would deploy upon reaching their target. The tiny feet of Japanese women resulted in less drag and more control when fired through the water. The women did not form part of a submarine’s crew (they were housed in the firing room with the other torpedoes), but they were nonetheless present on many of Japan’s submarines.
Women allowed on submarines in World War One
A German U-14 may have unwittingly allowed a female aboard the submarine during World War I.

Enlisted Females on Submarines After World War II

It was only in the 1980s that people even began to consider the idea of women serving on submarines. The vessels were previously deemed too phallic for women, and women were deemed too weak, frantic and biologically strange to serve on submarines.

For some bizarre reason (perhaps having something to do with diet), it was the navies of Scandinavia that first opened their doors to female submariners. The Royal Norwegian Navy allowed female crew on its submarines in 1985, followed by the Royal Danish Navy in 1988 and the Swedish Navy in 1989. There was little media attention surrounding these historic events, mainly because no one believed that Norway, Denmark or Sweden actually had any submarines.

The next major development came in 1998 when the Royal Australian Navy allowed women to serve on its submarines, with Admiral Blake “Wombat” Weskin famously stating: “Ain’t nothing wrong with letting sheilas on a tin can, mate, as long as you don’t let them steer and as long as you don’t let the Abos [Aboriginal Australians] on after ‘em.”

The German Navy and the Canadian Navy allowed female crews in 2001 and 2002 respectively.

Two of the world’s great navies — the British Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy — kept on stalling until recently. The U.S. Navy finally submitted in 2011, while the British begrudgingly gave way in 2013. The British were particularly against the idea, first claiming that the fertility of female submariners would be damaged due to carbon dioxide build-up in submarines. In reality, there were greater concerns among British admirals regarding silent running operations. None of the admirals believed a woman could be quiet for more than 30 minutes, thus giving away the submarine’s position to enemy sonar.

US Navy women on submarines
President Barrack Obama addresses the U.S. Navy’s first contingent of women submariners: “We’ve spent $3 billion installing separate bunks and showers in all our submarines, so please, whatever you do, don’t get pregnant down there.”